Saturday, April 6, 2013

National Poetry Month—Allen Ginsberg "Cosmopolitan Greetings"

Today is the anniversary of the death of Beat poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg in New York City in 1997. A Poetry Month dare not pass without his inclusion.
He was perhaps the most lineal literary descendent of Walt Whitman as today’s poem selection may attest

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, he was a Red Blanket baby of a pair of Jewish radicals and members of the Greenwich Village literary Bohemia of the Jazz Age. The life long struggle of his beloved and gifted mother Naomi with mental illness deeply affected him, as did an early exposure to the poetry of Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.  Coming of age in Depression deepened his familial devotion to working class causes and he entered Columbia University as a scholarship student and committed radical. 

At Columbia he met and developed close relationships with William S. Burroughs, Neil Cassidy, and Jack Kerouac and others who would become the avatars of the rebellious Beat movement of the post-war years.  Ginsberg came to believe that brutally honest expression through art, rather than conventional political activism, was the way in which he could create profoundly revolutionary change.  

After graduation, he developed a relationship with a literary hero of the previous generation, William Carlos Williams, who became an informal mentor and who introduced Ginsberg into the wider literary world, providing letters of introduction to Kenneth Rexroth and other West Coast poets when he relocated to San Francisco.  Later, when Ginsberg won a wide, devoted following among the young, he returned the favor by turning his audience on to Williams.  

Together Rexroth and Ginsberg made history with a public reading at the “6” Gallery in the City by the Bay on October 7, 1955, an event often cited as “the birth of the Beat.”  It was on that occasion that Ginsberg first read his epic stream of consciousness poem Howl

The following year Howl was published by Lawrence Ferlenghetti’s new City Lights Books.  Beset by censorship battles, which only encouraged a wider audience, and the horrified consternation of most of the academic poetry establishment, the little book went on to become one of the most widely read and admired works of American verse in the 20th Century

He continued to write and produced several collections, notably Kaddish and Other Poems in 1961.  He was always frank, and often lyrical, about his homosexuality and about his personal demons. 

Like Kerouac and other beats he immersed himself in eastern meditative religions.  But he also remained a dedicated political activist when he could use his poetry and presence to advance the cause.  He was deeply involved in the movement to end the Vietnam War and famously led a crowd in chants of Ohm one foggy night in Lincoln Park as the police closed in with teargas and truncheons.  He led many a free speech fight and was an early leader in the Gay Rights movement. 

Ginsberg received many honors, including a National Book Award, but probably because of his overt homosexuality and admitted drug use, not those high awards, like the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes or the Kennedy Center Honors which would have indicated a full embrace by the establishment.   He frankly didn’t care.

In later years he did join academia himself as a Distinguished Professor of Literature at Brooklyn College, an institution dedicated to the education of the sons and daughters of the urban proletariat.

Cosmopolitan Greetings makes very clear his emotional tie and debt to Whitman, who is explicitly mentioned in the text.  The poem echoes personally and for a new generation Whitman’s famous charge in Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Cosmopolitan Greetings

Stand up against governments, against God.
Stay irresponsible.
Say only what we know & imagine.
Absolutes are Coercion.
Change is absolute.
Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions.
Observe what’s vivid.
Notice what you notice.
Catch yourself thinking.
Vividness is self-selecting.
If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything.
Remember the future.
Freedom costs little in the U.S.
Advise only myself.
Don’t drink yourself to death.
Two molecules clanking us against each other require an observer to become
scientific data.
The measuring instrument determines the appearance of the phenomenal
world (after Einstein).
The universe is subjective.
Walt Whitman celebrated Person.
We are observer, measuring instrument, eye, subject, Person.
Universe is Person.
Inside skull is vast as outside skull.
What’s in between thoughts?
Mind is outer space.
What do we say to ourselves in bed at night, making no sound?
“First thought, best thought.”
Mind is shapely, Art is shapely.
Maximum information, minimum number of syllables.
Syntax condensed, sound is solid.
Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best.
Move with rhythm, roll with vowels.
Consonants around vowels make sense.
Savor vowels, appreciate consonants.
Subject is known by what she sees.
Others can measure their vision by what we see.
Candor ends paranoia.

—Allen Ginsberg


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